Throw away his pro day, and Teddy Bridgewater still looks like the best quarterback in this draft class. (Al Tielemans/SI)
If you think the stock and real estate markets are volatile, spend an entire winter and spring watching the perceptions of draft-eligible quarterbacks rise and fall. Then you will understand true craziness. There's a cottage industry developing with seemingly one intention -- to reduce and inflate perceived quarterback value based on limited tape study and specious-at-best analysis.
The best way to back out of all the noise and focus on what matters at the position is to go back to the tape and try to figure out what real attributes the quarterbacks possess. The 2014 NFL draft class certainly seems to be a bit more inspiring than the 2013 group, though there aren't obvious stars as there were two years ago with Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. Every signal-caller in this class has obvious flaws, but there are also several who could well take their teams to the next level as franchise players. At this position, it's all about what you're looking for, and who best fits your system. This time around, there's an interesting array of talent.
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1. Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville: So, now that the pre-draft hype train has flattened Teddy Bridgewater, knocking him on everything from his below-average pro day to the idea that he's a "boring" player with a relatively low ceiling (apparently, some anonymous team sources don't see him as a first-round talent), we should all just move on and watch whichever quarterback today's goofball with a microphone tells us is the Next Big Thing.
Or, we could wade through all that ridiculousness and deal with what Bridgewater brings to the table, and how he can help his eventual NFL team. He's a mobile, intelligent, competitive player with outstanding field vision and the ability to make most NFL throws. Does he have a laser rocket arm? No, but he can throw on the run, and throw off-balance, and throw across his body accurately, and until the NFL turns into a for-distance league in which quarterbacks simply tee off and throw the ball as far as they can with no pressure or defenders, these things will be very important to any signal-caller's success.
This is, after all, the same guy who completed 71 percent of his passes in 2013, and threw for nearly 4,000 yards. Yes, his schedule of opponents wasn't daunting, but he still had to make those plays. And yes, his weight dropped as low as 180 pounds during the season, but as long as he stays right around 210 in the NFL (he weighed in at 214 at the scouting combine), he should be just fine from a potential injury perspective. Paralysis by analysis is a common issue when it comes to the pre-draft process, and it's landed on Bridgewater this time. The solution is simple: Go back and watch the tape, and see the most NFL-ready quarterback in this draft class.
Draft projection: Top 10
2. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: If you're interested in flash and dash, Johnny Football might be your man ... but there's far more to Manziel than on-field gimmicks and off-field questions. Like most of the mobile quarterbacks who have taken the NFL by storm in the last few seasons, Manziel can make a compelling array of throws from outside the pocket and on the move. The story at his pro day was the fact that he wore a helmet and pads, but the intriguing takeaway for NFL teams was how he'd clearly worked on his mechanics -- making an already quick release even more consistent; and proving that whether in a hothouse environment or under serious defensive pressure, he can make throws that, as former NFL quarterback and current NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner said, "twenty of the starting quarterbacks [in the NFL] can’t do."
Still, there's work to be done. Manziel needs to be a little less frenetic in the pocket, he needs to become more trustworthy on stick throws to multiple targets and he needs to see the field in a more complex fashion. But it's encouraging that he sees what needs to be corrected -- and that he's made tangible improvements in a short time.
“I think you look at on-field stuff, from my freshman year to last year,” he said at the scouting combine about why NFL teams should be impressed with his progress. “I really tried to hone in on some things this year -- getting better in the pocket, and continuing to develop as a passer. Off the field, I’m continuing to learn from my mistakes, and continuing to grow up. I have an opportunity now, moving into a professional phase, and this is life now. This is the job for me, and I’m taking it very seriously, and I’m very excited about the future.”
As he should be. He's not a scheme-transcendent player, but Manziel can be everything he thinks he can be in the right situation.
Draft projection: Top 10
3. Blake Bortles, UCF: Bortles was a bit of a hot name last season, when he helped engineer wins over Penn State, Louisville and Connecticut. Bortles really hit the national radar when the Knights ruined Louisville’s chance for a perfect season with a 38-35 win in a game in which they had been down 28-7 in the third quarter. But the crushes really started when draftniks broke down Bortles' tape after the season was done and saw the paradigm of what many believe the ultimate, optimal NFL quarterback to be -- a big (6-foot-5, 232 pounds) guy who can sling the ball downfield and make plays with his mobility.
And while it's true that Bortles fits the suit, he'll need to work on his reads and develop a better understanding of more complex defenses. He's a work in progress. That's why his pro day was a bit of a mixed bag (as is his tape at times), but it's a challenge he seems ready to tackle.
"I have no problem with that," he said at the scouting combine, when asked if he'd be OK with sitting behind a more experienced quarterback for a time at the NFL level. "There’s no doubt I need coaching, I need help. I think everybody in the game does. There are reasons why all these greats out there are continuing to play and continuing to work in the offseason and get coached. One-hundred percent, I need coaching, I need help and I’m going to work my butt off to do everything I can to be the best that I can be to help a team be the best that they can be."
Draft projection: Top 10
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4. Derek Carr, Fresno State: Carr is currently the clubhouse leader in a lot of minds when the group of quarterbacks behind the Bridgewater/Manziel/Bortles trinity is discussed, and there's a lot to like about his game. He threw for some crazy numbers in 2013, leading the nation in passing attempts (454), passing yards (5,083) and touchdowns (50). Moreover, he's not just putting those stats up in a tricked-up offense -- Carr has the ability to drive the ball downfield to all areas of the field, and he can reset and do it on the run. He'll need to learn to play under center, and there are legitimate concerns about how he played against tougher defenses at the college level, but it wouldn't be a huge surprise if one NFL team saw more than enough to develop here and took him in the late first round as its quarterback of the future.
Draft projection: Late Round 1-early Round 2
5. Zach Mettenberger, LSU: If Mettenberger were entering the draft 25 years ago, he'd be a lead-pipe first-round prospect -- he has a classic delivery, good size for the position and can zing the ball into tight windows. He proved in 2013 that he could take command of pro concepts and make them work on the field, doing so under a former NFL offensive coordinator in Cam Cameron. Even in LSU's run-heavy offense, Mettenberger still impressed with over 3,000 passing yards and a 10.4 yards per attempt average. The main issue in his way is that Mettenberger doesn't show a lot of mobility -- he's very much the old-school statue of a quarterback who needs a clean pocket for a long time to really make things happen. Those types of throwers are being phased out of the NFL by faster and more complex defenses (though Philip Rivers is an example of a player who can still succeed despite this limitation), and Mettenberger will have to have the right kind of system -- and protection -- to make that work. The Vikings, who have a need at quarterback and Rivers' old offensive coordinator, Norv Turner, in tow, would seem to be a good landing spot.
Draft projection: Round 2-Round 3
6. AJ McCarron, Alabama: As is true of any physically limited quarterback who has been lifted to a championship level by great defenses and outstanding running games, McCarron has been saddled with the pejorative "game manager" label, and he's done everything possible to try to buck the perception.
"Everybody says I played behind NFL talent at Alabama," McCarron said at the combine. "Well, usually in the NFL, what’s in the NFL is NFL talent. So I don’t see how that can be a knock. I’m a leader. First one in, last one out. And I feel like I’ve always put us in a good situation to win the ballgame."
At times, yes. When it comes to his NFL prospects, McCarron talks a good game regarding his mechanics and deep-ball ability. The tape, however, shows a reasonably mobile, reasonably strong-armed, reasonably talented quarterback who usually had gobs of time in the pocket due to outstanding offensive lines, and a quarterback who didn't generally have to pull games out without a lot of help. Most likely, he's a career backup and possible spot starter at the NFL level.
Draft projection: Round 2-Round 3
7. Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Illinois: Garoppolo, who broke most of Tony Romo's records at his alma mater, got himself on the map with a strong Senior Bowl week. This led some to speculate that like Romo, Garoppolo could be a sneaky underrated prospect made for NFL success. However, a hard look at his tape reveals a fundamental flaw that will either delay or destroy that hope -- not only does Garoppolo get jittery and balky in the pocket under pressure; but also he bails and leaves plays on the field when he even perceives pressure. And he's going to see levels of pressure in the NFL that he never dealt with when facing, say, Austin Peay or UT Martin (no offense to those fine schools). If he can get that sorted out, Garoppolo has the skillset to become a medium-grade NFL asset.
Draft projection: Round 2-Round 3
8. Tom Savage, Pittsburgh: Savage, who transferred from Rutgers to Arizona and finally landed at Pitt to play in 2013, is the new belle of the ball in the ever-changing perception parade for draftable quarterbacks. A classic dropback passer with an outstanding arm, Savage is reportedly getting more and more interest from NFL teams despite his mechanical issues. However, those issues are there, and they show up over and over -- Savage doesn't throw the same type of pass consistently from game to game, he's erratic on the run and he's prone to unravel under pressure. Anyone looking for a Derek Anderson-style developmental prospect could do a lot worse. Anyone looking for a sleeper second-round talent might be panning for fool's gold.
Draft projection: Round 4
9. Aaron Murray, Georgia: Tony Dungy has all sorts of love for Murray -- in 2012, he claimed that Murray would be the No. 1 prospect in the 2013 draft if he made himself eligible, and he recently said that Murray will have a Russell Wilson-style impact in the NFL. We don't quite agree with the former Buccaneers and Colts head coach, but there are some things to like about Murray's game. A knee injury last November cut his 2013 season short, but Murray still managed to set SEC career-records for total yards (13,155), touchdown passes (121), total offense (13,562) and completions (921). He's a high-quality individual by all accounts, and he presents a nice combination of arm strength and mobility. Size and injury concerns, not to mention a pretty obvious ceiling, may limit Murray as a prospect. But in the right situation, he might just surprise and become a starter at some point.
Draft projection: Round 4-Round 5
10. David Fales, San Jose State: Fales has been around -- he started his collegiate career at Nevada, but didn't see a good fit with the running quarterback paradigm. After two JUCO seasons at Monterey Peninsula College and a short stop at Wyoming, he finally landed at San Jose State with a bang. Fales completed a nation's best 72.5 percent of his passes in 2012, and posted his second straight 4,000-yard season for the Spartans last season. Fales is a good overall quarterback who has obvious issues with arm strength and throwing mechanics on the run. He's probably going to be a high-quality backup, though he'll need to work on improving his throwing velocity before that can happen -- he pushes the ball too often and gets off-balance because he has to put everything he's got behind deeper passes.
Draft projection: Round 5